I don’t care how awesome the hero is, if there isn’t something worth his time to pit him against, I just can’t get into the story. I think that’s why so many D&D games fall flat for me – I’ve created a character that is more or less epic, but the villain that’s produced for me to fight – eventually – never really seems… worthy.
I’ve always been a fan of villains. Yeah, there’s other forms of conflict – the man vs. nature, the man vs. society, the man vs. himself, etc. – but those never really, truly capture me the way that man vs. man does. Not to say that those others can’t be just as good; I thoroughly enjoyed My Side of the Mountain when I was in middle school. I loved Things Fall Apart when I read it in high school, and in college I read 100 Years of Solitude and Dance Dance Dance, instantly falling in love with both Marquez and Murakami, respectively.
But the villain, for me, is where it’s at. In high school I was, embarrassingly, entranced by Thrax in Osmosis Jones, and there’s something about Septimus from Stardust that makes me go weak in the knees.* Visser Three was my first real villain from literature that really roused any sort of reaction in me at all – that was the very first character that I ever truly, legitimately Did Not Like.**
Good villains, unfortunately, are so difficult to come by. It’s like most people who sit down to write a store come up with some fan-freaking-tastic hero and then think, “Oh yeah, I have to have someone evil for him to humiliate, beat up, and defeat later, I should probably come up with that.” What you get then is a holier-than-thou, clichéd, cardboard cut-out of a villain, and that’s… that’s not worth my time.
A villain needs just as much work, if not more, than your hero. He has to be convincing, because if the reader doesn’t really believe that this person doesn’t pose any threat whatsoever to your hero’s interests/quest/mission, then why the hell is he going to waste his time reading?
There’s a few things that every villain needs, in my opinion. I’ll use Asmodeus, the villain from deAngelis: Resurrection, as an example to color each point. I’ll try not to give up any spoilers.
Villains have got to pose some threat to the hero, somehow. Maybe not to their only physical person – he doesn’t have to be able to kill him – but the beauty of it is that some villains don’t have to kill you to get what they want. They can hurt your family. They can sabotage your work, and wreck your job. They can steal your soul, your money, your car. They can kill your cat.
If you hero is obviously stronger, better, tougher, faster, and smarter than your villain, then your villain isn’t a threat. He needs to have some advantage over the hero, whether it’s money, people, strength, intelligence – whatever. Super-powers. Ray guns. Knowledge of the hero’s severe life-threatening allergy to chewing gum. Your hero can be better than everyone else – fine – but your villain, in at least one meaningful way, needs to be better than your hero. He needs to have something the hero doesn’t have.
Asmodeus, in deAngelis, is a danger to Jenna. She’s terrified of him. He’s got the ability to warp her will to his own. He can kill her, or drag her down to hell, or shatter her mind. The longer it takes Jenna to find him, the stronger he gets, and the closer he gets to that goal. He’s a prince of Hell, and Jenna is just some half-angel with a drinking problem and a nicotine addiction. There’s a chance that Jenna can extricate herself from the dilemma and come out on top, but it won’t be through brute or arcane force – Asmodeus is better at her than that.
This is possibly one of the more irritating flaws that I’ve seen in villains over the years, followed closely by, “Because I want to take over the world!” Your villain has to have a set goal, and reasons behind that. He can want money and power and all that, but unless he’s an idiot he’s not going to come right out and just TAKE it, because it’s going to be so easy to take it away again, and I don’t want to watch some moron flail about onscreen for two hours or four hundred pages like an ambulatory jellyfish with a speech impediment. If he wants to rule a country, then he’s going to have to be handing out bribes, discreetly taking out key people, etc. – and to pay for that, he’s going to have to have some trade going on, which will likely be illegal. Is he at the top of a shady drug cartel? Does he have his hands in several different monopolies? Does he assassinate people for a living? I want a villain who believes that he’s the good guy, or who can at least rationalize his actions with reasons other than sociopathy and narcissism.
Asmodeus wants to kill Jenna not because “he’s a demon and that’s just what they do”, but because he has a personal stake in it. For one, he wants revenge – he, a prince of Hell, has been essentially stuck in a human-made jail for the better part of a decade because of her, and that’s humiliating. He needs to reclaim his pride, and he can only do that by wrecking her day. What’s more, he needs to make sure that he isn’t going to have his own day wrecked – killing her father pushed her deal with Satan for her soul to the technicality line, and may in fact his mistake may be a deal-breaker altogether. If he doesn’t want his ass kicked by Satan, he should probably hand the guy Jenna Devries’s soul on a silver platter.
Now, this rule clearly doesn’t apply to people who are clearly off their rockers. One of the best villains ever, in my opinion, is Doctor Who’s The Master, played by John Simm, especially as he’s portrayed in “The End of Time.” The Master is just… insane. And it’s creepy, and it’s brilliant. And part of what makes it quite so brilliant is the fact that he has these occasional moments of lucidity, when he shows that he does have these goals, and these strengths, but they all get muddled and twisted in his own insanity and that’s what makes him a villain, is the good intentions gone awry and warped.
There are certain things that a villain can and can’t do, and by “can’t” I mean “shouldn’t”, and by “shouldn’t” I mean “if you do this I will come hunt you down and break all of your kneecaps.”
Part of this is connected to personality – your villain’s needs to be as developed as your hero’s. You need to know what makes him tick. You need to know how to piss him off, even if your hero doesn’t.
Etiquette comes down to how the villain behaves in his role as a villain. Now, I can’t cover everything, because there’s a loooooong list of Stupidest Villain Moves Ever, but I can hit a few key points.
- When he’s got the hero captured, he’s not going to spill all of his plans – maybe some of them, but he’s not going to brag. That’s stupid. If he’s gotten far enough to capture the hero, that’s not luck, that’s skill and intelligence and maturity. Telling the hero every intricate detail of his plans is uncharacteristically narcissistic of such a person.
- When a villain is going to murder the hero and walk away – or try to – he’s not going to set a bomb to a count-down and then walk away. He’s going to break the character’s neck, or shoot him, or stab him. Even if he wants to have the building blown up, he’s going to make sure the hero is dead before he walks out. Similarly, it’s bring guys to shoot the hero and then leave before they do it.
- Please, please, please don’t don’t have your villains wear black. The only place I’ve ever seen this done where this worked was in the Charlaine Harris Southern Vampire Mystery novels (known better to some via the show True Blood). Why did it work? The characters are doing it ironically. Sort of.
- Also, one-liners? Tempting. But unless you’re going for camp, avoid them.
Villains are the most compelling part of a novel. There’s no tension without a good villain, and tension is what keeps a person reading.
Here, essentially, is a list of things a villain MUST be/do/have:
- What is the villain’s goal? (something other than world domination)
- What is this villain’s strength? Weakness?
- How can the villain make the situation personal for the hero?
- What is the relationship between the villain and the hero? How do they feel about each other? What do they think about each other?
- How does he want others to see him? Not the people who work for him, but normal, everyday people. This can say a lot about a villain.
Hopefully I’ve covered everything I think’s important. Likely later in the week I’ll write about my favorite villains of all time.
* Although that may have more of something to do with the fact that Mark Strong is the most gorgeous man alive.
**Also, Andalites are frigging awesome and I will shank anyone who tries to say different.